Could Hachimura Joining Starters Be Ham’s Next Strategic Move?

LakerTom
5 min readMay 16, 2023

Rookie head coach Darvin Ham has been on a hot streak since the Lakers remade their roster at the trade deadline where every single roster move he’s made has worked out beautifully. He’s now 8 games away from a chip.

As a rookie coach, Darvin Ham has done an impressive job creating winning starting lineups and rotations as the Lakers dominated down the stretch in the regular season and throughout the first two playoff rounds. While making roster decisions, Ham has maintained an open mind both to Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ front office and his own coaching staff. His rosters moves so far have been perfect mix of evolving and adjusting.

With the underdog Lakers opening the Western Conference Finals against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets tomorrow night in Denver, L.A. Ham has yet another opportunity to make an impactful change in his starting lineup. While Jarred Vanderbilt started 11 of the Lakers’ 12 playoff games, Darvin Ham turned to Dennis Schroder in Game 6 of the Warriors series because Vanderbilt’s lack of shooting gravity allowed Golden State to play 5-on-4.

With the Lakers needing to go big to match up with the Nuggets’ front court of 6' 11" Jokic, 6' 8" Gordon, and 6' 10" Porter, the time’s now come for Ham to replace Jarred Vanderbilt in the starting lineup with Rui Hachimura.

The Vanderbilt Problem

As impactful as Vanderbilt has been at times during the first two rounds of the playoffs, there have also been matchups where his skills have not been critical and his lack of shooting gravity has derailed the Lakers offense.

While Jarred Vanderbilt could probably do a good job defending Michael Porter, Jr., his lack of threat as a shooter is going to allow the Nuggets to ignore him completely and play 5-on-4 when the Lakers are on offense. Right now, Jarred is averaging 5.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.0 blocks in 17.2 mpg while shooting 40.7/25.0/66.7% for the playoffs. His playoffs plus/minus is +0.3 and playoff net rating is -0.7.

Should the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets and get to the NBA Finals, it’s possible that Vanderbilt might be a better fit against the Boston Celtics with their two big wing scorers than bigger and slower Hachimura. Ham seems to have no problem with not having a permanent fifth starter, opting to deploy a strategy that uses that last starting spot in these playoffs to better matchup with whatever team the Lakers are playing against.

The Lakers saw in Game 6 vs. Warriors how their offense was dramatically more efficient with five players who can stretch the floor and cannot be left unguarded in the corner. The Lakers cannot start Vando against Denver.

The Hachimura Solution

Rui Hachimura has been one of the Lakers most impactful bench players. He’s become a staple in the Lakers’ rotation. He’s fifth on the team in points and rebounds per game and first in field goal and 3-point shot percentage.

But the time’s now come for Darvin to replace Vanderbilt in the starting lineup with Hachimura, who has the defensive size and length to bother Porter, Jr. and offensive shot making skills to make him work hard on D. Starting Hachimura should dramatically improve the Lakers’ offensive efficiency as Rui is probably the team’s most consistent long-range and midrange shooter, hitting 57.0% from the field and 53.3% from three.

Rui does not have Vando’s quick feet and lateral mobility and is not as good a perimeter defender but he’s a little bigger and longer than Jarred and more physical in the paint. And he’s another world entirely offensively.
Rui is averaging 11.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 0.6 assists in 21.2 mpg while shooting 57.0/53.3/66.7% with +1.3 plus/minus and +1.8 net rating. The Lakers’ five top scorers are James, Davis, Russell, Reaves, and Hachimura.

Starting Hachimura dramatically upgrades the Lakers’ starting lineup because it now gives superstars James and Davis three other starters averaging double digits and capable of dropping 20 points in any game.

The Joker Defense

The Denver Nuggets will be by far the toughest opponent the Lakers have yet faced in these playoffs. They not only boast two-time MVP Nikola Jokic but also roll out a lineup with five players who can shoot the three ball.

The big question for the Lakers is how will the defend Nikola? The media consensus is the Lakers cannot allow Jokic to both be a big time scorer and playmaker. They have to take one of those away from the Denver Nuggets. Strategically, Ham and the Lakers’ #1 defense is based on Anthony Davis being free to roam and play free safety, something he won’t be able to do if he has to defend Nikola Jokic. So why not have Hachimura defend Joker?

The best solution might be to let Anthony Davis guard Aaron Gordon, the lowest volume and percentage 3-point shooter of the Denver starters. That will allow him to roam and help Hachimura defend the rim against Jokic. This game was always going to be a battle between the Lakers’ #1 playoff defense and the Nuggets’ #1 playoff offense. Having Rui Hachimura guard Nikola Jokic could be the key to the Lakers defense winning the series.

Hachimura has the size and length to be the primary defender on Nikola Jokic to free Anthony Davis to be free to roam and protect the Lakers’ paint and rim and the 3-point and midrange shooting game to boost the offense.

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LakerTom

Lakers fanatic since 1971 when team traded for Wilt Chamberlain. Founder, editor, and publisher of Lakerholics.com, a community for smart informed Lakers fans.